Have you ever asked yourself the question, what becomes of Romeo, if his Juliet were to die, but he continued to live? Paul Muldoon, a voice at the forefront of contemporary Irish poetry, answers this question in his latest play Incantata, which debuted at the Galway International Arts Festival in 2018 to critical acclaim and has returned for twelve performances only at Dublin’s Gate Theatre from the 5th to the 14th of September.
Incantata is a mournful swan song delivered by one man, the outstanding Stanley Townsend, who’s charisma and energy captivate the audience from the beginning of the play until its very last moments. It is a celebration of life and love and, simultaneously, a bitter lament of their eventual loss, as they are stolen away by the sands of time.
Dressed in navy overalls smudged with paint, Townsend casually spends the first five minutes prior to the performance adjusting and readjusting various pieces of unusual artwork which decorate the stage, seemingly oblivious to the chattering audience just at his feet. Meanwhile, the radio in the corner, a character in itself, serenades him to “This Must Be The Place.” By Talking Heads, as he paces across the stage methodically. As I sat down to my seat five minutes before the play’s beginning, I was astounded to find that the play had in fact, already begun. The effect of this seeming show-before-the-show is that, by the time the play has begun, the tone has been very firmly established, and the audience’s eyes are glued to Townsend’s every move.
As previously stated, Incantata is a one man show, however this isn’t strictly true. There is a second character to whom Townsend addresses all his soliloquys. A camera recorder atop a tripod precariously attached to a chair, and as Townsend lovingly wraps a ratty shawl around its would be shoulders, it becomes clear that the camera, an object of lifeless machinery, is meant to serve as a substitute for his lost love. The recorder also serves a second purpose in that, it projects Townsend’s tortured features onto the stage behind him, as he moves between mania and melancholy. Watching Townsend in first person, from the perspective of the recorder has the effect of creating a rarely felt sense of intimacy between the actor and his audience.
There are, admittedly, moments when it seems like, simply performance for performance’s sake, with soliloquy after soliloquy sometimes feeling rather relentless. However, it is in the quiet moments, when all the lights have gone out and the radio has gone silent, that Muldoon’s play truly shines. It is in these moments, that it becomes clear that this is not in fact a one-man show, but a labour of love crafted by many hands.
Special credit has to be given to Paul Keogan, Sinead Diskin, and Jack Phelan, who respectively designed the superb lighting, sound, and video effects for the show. The linchpin of the piece arrives at the play’s conclusion, when the stage literally comes apart, as the back wall collapses, creating a deafening slam. A glaring orange light is revealed, blinding the audience as Townsend’s dark silhouette walks slowly forward, delivering his final soliloquy, a rich tapestry of meaning which has been weaved throughout the entire performance. Incantata is one of those rare pieces of art which achieves a heart-breaking sense of resonance with its audience, it will make you both believe in the incredible power of love, and at the same time, make you hope with all of your heart, that you never have the misfortune of feeling it.